In Search of Better Stories

Putin’s War Vs. Polk’s War

Putin's War Vs. Polk's War

There is a country, a big strong one, much stronger than all its neighbours. Its leader feels that expansion is in its best interest. The country nearest it has some separatist elements that support being annexed by the big country. Civil unrest abounds in the weaker neighbour. What a perfect opportunity for a land grab!

An army of observation is formed and sent to the border. The stronger country starts to meddle in the weaker country’s affairs. The bullying nation needs a pretext for war. With its army massed on the border harassing the smaller nation, it isn’t long before they find one. The army of observation becomes the army of invasion. It’s a harsh, brutal and grinding war. The smaller nation puts up a terrific fight, and for decades afterward, members of the invading army speak of the bravery and valour of their opponents in the face of such daunting odds. One by one, the cities are destroyed. Local populations are starved and ground down by the vicissitudes of war.  Eventually, the capital city is taken, and the army of invasion becomes the army of occupation. The smaller country is forced to capitulate. With the terms of surrender, they are given a financial sum and allowed to keep their sovereignty, but the war costs them fully half their territory. The wildly successful land grab by the big country is by no means an inexpensive venture. One in five of the invading army lose their lives.

Am I speaking with prophetic undertones about what is destined to happen with Putin’s war in Ukraine? No, I’m speaking of Polk’s war in Mexico in the 1840s. The parallels are unnerving. Whether Polk’s war or Putin’s war, it’s the same basic storyline. Even the colours of the invader’s flag are the same! Without the U.S. victory over Mexico, there would be no California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and part of Colorado. This war was a land grab bonanza that makes Putin’s incursion into Ukraine seem like a trifling endeavour.

 I learned about Polk’s war (yes, that’s what historians refer to it) by reading Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography: Grant. Ulysses S. Grant, Civil war hero and future two-time president, was a young soldier in the conflict. However, he was not gung-ho about the adventure; he saw it for what it was.

Upon reflection, Grant said

“I’m always ashamed of my country when I think of that invasion.”

In a letter written from Mexico to his future wife Julia, Grant bemoans widespread atrocities (what we would refer to nowadays as “war crimes”)

“Some of the volunteers and about all of the Texans think it perfectly right to impose upon these conquered peoples and even murder them if it can be covered by the dark. How they enjoy acts of violence.”

Grant’s commanding officer, Zach Taylor, agreed with Grant’s sentiments.

“This war was injudicious in policy and wicked in fact.”

Abraham Lincoln would also concur.

 “Polk (should be) deeply conscious of being in the wrong. He feels the blood of the war like the blood of Able crying to heaven against him”

The connection between the Mexican War and the American Civil war is undeniable. The vicious political debate sparked from deciding whether new states acquired from Mexico would be slave states or free states shattered the fragile peace between North and South, inexorably pushing the country into war. Grant reflected on this connection with repentant sobriety.

“The Civil war was the outgrowth of the Mexican War; nations like individuals are punished for their transgressions.”

I look at Polk’s mess then and Putin’s mess and I sadly shake my head, history continues to repeat itself. Is there anything helpful I can learn? Is there anything I can hope for?

  1. Say no to war as political capital and ease up on nationalism — Nothing solidifies power more than a well-timed war. The patriotism it produces is money in the bank for leaders who want to stay in power. Putin’s popularity soared to astonishing heights after he annexed Crimea. Grant is spot on when he says, “The Mexican war was a political war and the administration conducting it had a mind to make party capital out of it”  At some point, we as a human race have to come to value human rights and care for our neighbour more than national interests and political opportunism.
  2. Maybe give the Mexicans a break? Since over 25% of the American landmass was snatched from Mexico in Putin-like fashion, perhaps it’s ok that so many Mexicans call it home without having precisely the proper paperwork.
  3. Unite against the bully – Mexico stood alone against a burgeoning super-power and lost. Polk assumed no other nation would rise to assist the Mexicans, his hunch proved correct and so he won. Putin made these same assumptions. But this time, other nations have risen to the aid of the weaker brother. Putin’s plans for a quick smash and grab have now been stymied. It would be good if the human race could figure out a way to consistently push back against the bullies of our world.
  4. The absolute necessity of dissenting voices. One significant distinction between the two offending nations is that one allows dissenting voices and the other doesn’t. Grant, Lincoln, Taylor and numerous others enjoyed the freedom to speak their minds. I believe this freedom has helped America learn from its mistakes. The same cannot be said about Russia; there is only the party line. For any who disagree with it, there is poison, sudden disappearance, or the Gulag.
  5. When is it right to disobey orders? – To betray ones country seems unthinkable. It’s the unpardonable sin. Grant and Taylor knew the invasion of Mexico was unwarranted. Yet they dutifully executed their orders of conquest with distinction. Both became war heroes and future presidents, at least in part for their bravery in Mexico. They would have been dismissed, imprisoned, or perhaps even worse if they had refused to fight. Did they do the right thing in disobeying their conscience but obeying their orders? Ultimately I hope to see a world full of common men and women that have so totally lost their taste for war that almost never would national duty and personal conscience have a conflict. If this were the case even the most ego-driven ambitious leaders of our world would be pushed aside no matter how much they beat their chests, wave their flags, and rattle their sabres.  
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